Ktismatics

27 June 2008

Flesh and Spirit

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 3:27 pm

το γαρ ϕρονημα της σαρκος θανατος, το δε ϕρονημα του πνευματου ζωη και ειρηνη. “For the flesh’s way of thinking is death; but the spirit’s way of thinking is life and peace.” (Paul in Romans 8:6)

After centuries during which this theme has been subjected to Platonizing (and therefore Greek) amendment, it has become almost impossible to grasp what is nevertheless a crucial point: The opposition between spirit and flesh has nothing to do with the opposition between the soul and the body. That is precisely why both the one and the other are thoughts. (Badiou, Saint Paul, pp. 55-56)

Badiou contends that, confronted with the “Christ-event” of death and resurrection, the subject finds himself divided in how he grasps and responds to that event. But this inner division isn’t the movement of a dialectic, whereby through the negation of the negation death is supplanted by resurrected life. Rather, the two moments are held in tension simultaneously and continually until the moment when resurrection suddenly comes forth out from the power of death, not through its negation. Paul doesn’t laud the redemptive efficacy of suffering as a means of mortifying the flesh and bringing forth the spirit. Suffering is inevitable in this world, but the Christ event offsets suffering with the consolation of hope. [Note: in Romans 5:3ff, when Paul writes that he exults in tribulation because it brings about hope, he’s not saying that the tribulation burns away his doubt, making him a more hopeful person. Rather, he’s saying that hope is what lets him exult while in the midst of tribulation. Both tribulation and hope, death and life, flesh and spirit, are present in him at the same time.] When Paul describes his own sufferings in some detail in 2 Cor. 11, he does so only to emphasize his own weakness, bearing the precious gift in an earthen vessel, in contrast to the discourse of power to which the Jews are accustomed.

Let us propose a formula: in Paul, there is certainly the Cross, but no path of the Cross. There is Calvary, but no ascent of Calvary. Energetic and urgent, Paul’s preaching includes no masochistic propaganda extolling the virtues of suffering, no pathos of the crown of thorns, flagellation, oozing blood, or the gall-soaked sponge. (pp. 67-68 )

Death cannot bring salvation because death is on the side of the flesh. He’s not talking about flesh as body, destined to perish while the soul lives forever. After all, the glory of the Christ event is the resurrection, the glorified body. Rather, the flesh is a ϕρονημα, a way of thinking about everything, including the body and the soul. Paul’s response to the ϕρονημα of the flesh is a resolute “no”. No to law and self-abnegation; likewise no to transgressive desire and self-gratification; most importantly, no to death. Paul says “yes” to the ϕρονημα of the spirit, to the uniqueness of the Christ event, to the resurrection.

In sum, death is only required insofar as, with Christ, divine intervention must, in its very principle, become strictly equal to the humanity of man, and hence to the thought that dominates him, which as subject is called “flesh,” and as object “death.” When Christ dies, we, mankind, shall cease to be separated from God, since by filiating Himself with the sending of his Son, He enters into the most intimate proximity to our thinking composition. Such is the unique necessity of Christ’s death: it is the means to an equality with God himself. Through this thought of the flesh, whose real is death, is dispensed to us in grace the fact of being in the same element as God himself. Death here names a renunciation of transcendence. Let us say that Christ’s death sets up an immanentization of the spirit. (p. 69)

Next: law versus love.

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4 Comments »

  1. I recall that you have commented that you didn’t believe that for Paul the “flesh” was something immoral.

    Here it seems as though Badiou is suggesting that the flesh is a mindset of death.

    Do you have a working definition of “flesh”? If flesh is not immoral but is in fact a mindset of death, then even if it isn’t immoral isn’t still something undesirable (according to Paul, anyway)?

    I’m just wondering if you are starting to nail down a working definition of “flesh.”

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    Comment by Erdman — 1 July 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  2. I’ve not critiqued Badiou’s position, concentrating more on summarizing it. I think he’s right in not equating Paul’s flesh/spirit distinction with Greek dualism. On the other hand, Badiou contends that the new man can act in accord with his thoughts and beliefs, which does reflect the Greek hierarchy of mind and will over passion and appetite. The reconciliation is, I think, that the old man’s thoughts and passions fight each other whereas in the new man they harmonize with each other. Here I think Badiou explicitly follows Lacan, and perhaps also where Lacan follows Paul to complete the circle. To my knowledge Lacan doesn’t cite Scriptural influences very often, and he certainly wasn’t religious in outlook, but he grew up in a Catholic household and attended a Jesuit high school, so presumably he knew something about Pauline psychology.

    Reading Romans 7, Badiou follows Paul’s distinction between desire/coveting on the one hand and “what I want” on the other: desire is the unconscious automaton controlled by law, what I want is desire freed from this sort of bondage, passion that is part of one’s subjective agency in the world. The divide between self as subject and self as object winds up aligning passions with wrongdoing and against reason, but this too is an artifact of law. Law is the letter, apprehended by consciousness, and the law focuses on prohibition and territorializing of desire. But law splits mind against passion, conscious against unconscious, such that mind is controlled by external law and passion by unconscious rebellion against external law. This I think is the mindset of the flesh.

    Formerly we knew Christ according to the flesh, Paul says somewhere, but now we know him thus no longer. Clearly Paul isn’t using the OT neologism for sexual relations here. Instead it’s the old-man mindset that sees him as a Jew and not a Gentile, as promulgator of a law of separation, as someone either to compete with or to imitate in the usual ways of mimetic desire that Girard describes and that’s at the root of the contentions and groupthink conformities that Paul warns his readers about.

    Does this sound right, Erdman? Any further thoughts you’ve had in this regard?

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    Comment by ktismatics — 2 July 2008 @ 4:38 am

  3. Well, I think it is significant that Paul uses “coveting” as his example to illustrate his point. In the act of coveting someone else’s property (“their ox or ass or manservant or maidservant,” as the KJV translation of the OT puts it), Lacan’s “excess of desire” seems to be at play and especially Girard’s mimetic desire.

    Can we isolate Lacan from Girard for a moment?

    Let’s say that there is no law against coveting: I am free to covet my neighbor’s ass or his ox. It probably is not possible to eliminate our “innate” sense of property rights (especially in the States), but what if there were no prohibition? If there were no law, would we still covet? Or is coveting dependent entirely upon a law that prohibits it (Lacan)?

    Well, if my understanding of mimetic desire is correct, then I might covet my neighbors ox because he finds it desirable. Or, I might just take a fancy to my neighbor’s ass because he finds the ass to be very desirable. So, do we need a law to be at work in order for mimetic desire to be put in effect? Or does my mind “create” a law in the subconscious that says, “no, that’s not your ass, so you can’t have it.”

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    Comment by Erdman — 2 July 2008 @ 2:24 pm

  4. Because the word “covet” is so closely associated with the rest of the commandment — “thy neighbor’s house/wife/goods/etc., we think of it as having intrinsically to do with wanting that which belongs to someone else. But in fact “covet” = “desire,” both in the OT and in the NT. However, the commandment does explicitly link desire to what’s prohibited precisely because it does belong to someone else. I’d say that for both Lacan and Girard, desiring what the other wants/has is intrinsic to human nature because people always sense a lack in themselves, so they look at what others have that presumably makes them whole and latch onto that. Arguably then, from both Lacan’s and Girard’s point of view, people would covet the other’s stuff regardless of a law prohibiting it. To this intrinsic “desire the desire of the other” mechanism Lacan adds the idea of desiring what’s explicitly prohibited by law, which Paul talks about at length. So the prohibition exacerbates the mimetic desire that’s already at work.

    If we eliminated both mimesis and ownership rights, would people have any desire for things? Sure, don’t you think? They might not want to OWN these things, but they would want to have whatever benefits or pleasure they afford: nourishment, sex, labor-saving aids, etc.

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    Comment by ktismatics — 2 July 2008 @ 4:18 pm


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